Equity & Diversity

Mainland Schools Receive Puerto Rican Students—and Educators—With Open Arms

By Denisa R. Superville — October 13, 2017 8 min read
Sacheiry Comeron, 34, gets a kiss from her son, Yomar Lopez, 12, after Comeron secured an interview for a teaching job with the Orange County school district at a reception center set up at the Orlando International Airport to greet evacuees from Puerto Rico. Comeron's résumé includes 10 years of teaching experience, a masters degree in education and certifications to be a principal.

When Edgardo Ortiz boarded a flight from Puerto Rico to Florida on Oct. 7, with his wife and 9-year-old daughter, he didn’t have a concrete plan for what would happen next.

He planned to stay with his aunt in Kissimmee, enroll his daughter in school, and look for a job.

With recovery efforts on the island painfully slow—he still had no potable water or electricity when he left home in Caguas—Ortiz wanted more stability for his daughter, elderly mother, and mother-in-law.

At Orlando International Airport, the family ran into Bridget Williams, the chief of staff for the Orange County school system, who, along with other district staffers, had set up a table at the airport five days earlier to greet Puerto Rican evacuees. They were there to inform them about schooling options and social services available in the Orlando area. (The education website, The 74, reported this week on efforts by school districts to accommodate Puerto Rican evacuees.)

Williams perked up when she overheard that Ortiz and his wife taught physics and chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico. By the end of the encounter, Ortiz and his wife had job offers to teach science at one of the district’s high schools. The couple may start teaching as early as next week.

See Also: Inside Puerto Rico’s Recovery Efforts: On-the-Ground Coverage

Since Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico in late September, school districts on the mainland in areas with large Puerto Rican populations have been bracing for an influx of students. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and thousands have migrated to the continental United States and settled in enclaves on the East Coast, including New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn., Holyoke, Mass., and Miami.

Student Diaspora

As of Oct. 9, officials in Orange County had enrolled nearly 300 students from Puerto Rico and 92 from the U.S. Virgin Islands, which, like Puerto Rico, were heavily damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria. The Miami-Dade County school district had enrolled 251 Puerto Rican students by Oct. 12, and was preparing for more.

Florida districts are used to taking in large numbers of students from Latin America and the Caribbean after natural disasters and political upheavals. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the state’s schools took in thousands of students.

The state is offering a number of flexibilities in the storm’s wake, including waiving application fees for Puerto Rican educators who want to continue working in the sector.

Around the rest of the mainland United States, school officials in cities that expect students to join their relatives have issued directives to principals to help make it easier for students who show up without birth certificates, immunization records, school transcripts—even clothing, in some cases—to get back into the classrooms as seamlessly, and as quickly, as possible.

“We are not asking for any documentation—if they don’t have it, they don’t have it,” said Rebeca Chaverri, the homeless education coordinator in the Holyoke, Mass., school system, where 80 percent of students are of Puerto Rican descent.

Districts have yet to see the thousands of students they were expecting, but officials say they anticipate the numbers to increase once flights to and from the island become more frequent and the infrastructure gets better. Three weeks after the hurricane, only 16 percent of the country has power.

Only 11 Puerto Rican students had enrolled in Holyoke’s schools by Oct. 13, but the district had information and inquiries from as many as 30 families indicating that school-age relatives from Puerto Rico may stay with them, Chaverri said.

Family Networks

Families were still trying to sort out where youngsters would stay because relatives may be scattered in different cities and the students’ final destinations are still unknown, Chaverri said.

“It’s a family effort to bring your relatives [from] Puerto Rico,” she said.

But, she thinks what the school system has seen so far “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

It’s unclear right now how an influx will affect Holyoke, which, in a normal school year, always receives students from Puerto Rico, said Stephen Zrike, Holyoke’s state-appointed superintendent.

The district is providing counseling, housing assistance, and food for students. If there is a large influx, officials will have to think about whether there is enough classroom space, depending on where in Holyoke they settle. Some schools and grade levels are near capacity, he said.

“If we get closer to 75 to 100 students—that would be very hard for us to absorb,” Zrike said of the 5,300-student district. The district right now is “committed to welcoming the students, making sure they feel comfortable, getting them enrolled as quickly as possible so they have uninterrupted [schooling] to the extent possible, and then coordinating with community agencies to make sure that the families have the wraparound supports that they need,” he said.

Enlisting Outside Help

This week, the city designated the social service agency, Enlace de Familias, to coordinate city services for families arriving from Puerto Rico—from directing families to social services, housing, and health care.

The possibility that she will have more students has pushed Chaverri to start contacting foundations earlier than she normally would to get winter supplies—coats, socks, and mittens—for students who may be facing their first New England winter. She also had to get additional donations for backpacks, with books and school supplies. And she’s looking for grants for the district’s welcome center.

It’s not just students who are making the leap from the island. Adults, faced with back-to-back storms, on an island that was already struggling financially, are also leaving.

Taking advantage of regulatory leeway that Florida is offering, the Orange County school system had hired eight teachers from Puerto Rico by Oct. 10. The district also is vetting inquiries from 50 individuals interested not just in teaching but in working in custodial and food services, Williams said.

The Miami-Dade district is also vetting candidates from Puerto Rico who have expressed interest in teaching, officials there said. The district is also working with the Puerto Rico department of education to align standards so that students will have a smooth transition when their families return to the island.

In Search of Stability

Ortiz, the teacher headed to Kissimmee, has a master’s degree in physics from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, while his wife has a Ph.D. in chemistry.

He said the family left Puerto Rico mainly because of their daughter, who needed stability, but also because they were not seeing a lot of progress with recovery efforts after the storm.

“If you are there, and you see progress every day, you think there is hope—you can see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “But I wasn’t seeing that.”

“We studied in the United States, and we went back to Puerto Rico because we wanted to contribute to our island and to the young people,” Ortiz said. “But at this time, I just had to do this. This is something that I need to do for my daughter.”

He thinks it’s a difficult decision for professionals to leave the island, particularly at a time when they are needed to help rebuild.

“The issue with the professionals coming here is that many people are losing their jobs,” he said. “If you don’t have a job, you don’t get paid.”

Ortiz had planned to apply for a job in higher education or in K-12. In addition to teaching at the University of Puerto Rico, he spent a year working with teachers in Chicopee, Mass., while at Amherst, as part of a fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

Whether he stays or not depends on how comfortable his daughter is in school and whether his new job is permanent. (They were on contract positions at the University of Puerto Rico, he said.)

‘We Are There to Help’

Williams, the Orange County chief of staff, said school employees will be at the airport for as long as they are allowed to stay.

“We are there to help,” she said. “But being able to say that we can also help you with finding employment, that makes folks feel even better.”

“It’s been ... an eye opener because we realize those that are coming here from Puerto Rico, most have lost everything,” she said. “We try to make it quite clear that if there is anything that Orange County public schools can do to help, we’re here to help.”

Jacqueline Gonez Mejia, 48, holds up her résumé and teaching diploma at a reception center set up at the Orlando International Airport to greet evacuees from Puerto Rico. Gonez, an elementary teacher for the past 15 years in Puerto Rico, is applying for a teaching job in the Orange County school district.

Barbara Jenkins, the superintendent of the Orange County school system, said the primary goal was to welcome families and let them know that the school district was ready with resources to help their children.

“But if they are looking for employment, we’d also like to help,” she said.

Florida districts are always looking for science teachers, she said. And bilingual educators from Puerto Rico will help with any influx of students they receive from the island, she said.

But Jenkins said she understood that it was a particularly difficult time for the island, and that Orange County will support educators while they are in Florida and when they are ready to return home.

At schools like Englewood Elementary in Orlando, which has received five Puerto Rican students so far, students are greeted with open arms.

The principal, assistant principal, and front-desk clerk are either Puerto Rican or of Puerto Rican descent.

Principal Vidal “Alex” Reyes, who was born in Puerto Rico, speaks to students in Spanish and lets them know that he attended schools on the island, and migrated to the mainland U.S. when he was 20 years old.

He tells students about his family’s experience during Hurricane Maria as a way to let them know that he understands what they are going through. His father, who lives in Puerto Rico, must go to a relative’s house to talk to him, and his mother spent days at the airport trying to get an flight back to Florida after the storm hit.

For overwhelmed parents, district officials tell them to just show up at schools.

“We have bookbags, backpacks at the schools, we have clothes closets, we have pencils, we have paper,” Williams said. “Just show up—that’s the word that we are trying to spread. Don’t worry about running to Walmart or Target to pick up anything.”

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